Mindfulness is such a self-help buzz word these days, but after reading about the benefits, and trying some free apps, I had to admit I felt some benefits. But as a Catholic, shouldn’t I just be able to pray away my stress and avoid anything remotely tied to meditation? Thankfully, I discovered the Catholic Mindfulness course and it was the perfect combination of spiritual and mental guidance I needed to find more peace in my days while not sacrificing (and actually increasing!) my prayer life.
I was allowed to take the course for free, but all opinions are my own and I remain eternally grateful to Dr. Greg Bottaro for this opportunity.
1. First and foremost, this course gave a name to the frantic pace my brain typically worked at from morning to night; Doing Mode. Before I took this course, I was running from fire to fire all day, thinking about everything on my plate, worrying about it all and sometimes stumbling through the tasks right in front of me. I thought to tackle a problem I had to think it through. But what I realize now is that my body was reacting to my thoughts as if I was actual physical danger. It was kicking into what Dr. Bottaro calls “autopilot” for my protection. However, since as I wasn’t actually going to be mauled by bears or anything, that heightened stress response was actually creating more problems. From the course, “Each new stimulating thought is a new temptation with habituated associations.” So my body was becoming conditioned to freak out over things that it didn’t need to. As I felt more and more frazzled, I sunk further into feelings of overwhelm, thus exacerbating the problem in a vicious cycle.
2. On top of this, the course helped me see how I was holding onto a script for perfectionism that was constantly pushing me to want to do more, and to always be busy because what I was accomplishing wasn’t enough. I don’t know exactly how I reached these beliefs about myself, but I see now that when I wasn’t busy problem solving, I was beating myself up or thinking about ways to try to do more. All the things I couldn’t do were proof I was a failure. Never in this automatic Doing Mode, was I trusting God to take care of anything. In fact He probably couldn’t have gotten a word in edgewise. My mind was a constant whirlwind of activity.
3. The Catholic Mindfulness Course quickly taught me how to step back from the craziness, look at my thoughts in a non-judgemental way as they appeared, and not get sucked into a long stream of related thoughts and automatic physical responses. From the course, “Mindfulness teaches you to create space between your thoughts.” I learned to regain control, rather than let my thoughts control me. I started to focus more on the present moment, and the task at hand, and as a thought rushed into my mind about something upcoming or upsetting, with practice, I was able to acknowledge the thought and then turn my attention back to what I was doing, rather than allow myself to ruminate. I could acknowledge the tenseness in my chest or knot in my stomach upon reading something online, and then let it go without mentally disputing the authors point in my mind for the next hour.
4. When you try to solve problems in Doing Mode, your creativity is stifled and it can seem like there is no easy answer. But when you learn to turn off the Doing Mode you see your problem as it truly is, and not through the eyes of a crazed lunatic. I started to worry less and turn over problems to God more easily. There was more peacefulness in my mind when I realized I didn’t have to solve everything myself. As we headed into the orphan hosting, and Tony prepared to run his own company full-time, I felt calmer than usual and could honestly say, “Whatever God. You got this.”
5. But I learned that you need to regularly practice mindfulness. The course offered me several audio recordings I could turn to at any time, however, once we started orphan hosting over the holidays, I stopped making that time for myself and I know that contributed to some of those old feelings of worry and panic sneaking in, but not nearly to the same extent. Now that I’ve re-read everything and am getting back into our normal routine, I’m able to carve out time for practice, and it’s worth it because when I’m less stressed, everyone in our home is less stressed. Recently, just putting forth the effort to make a Sacramental Pause after something online got me more fired up than usual helped me to calm down and move on with empathy for the author, rather than animosity.
6. For those struggling under difficult circumstances and questions of “Why me God?”, Week 5 of the course is for you. I could relate to Dr. Bottaro’s message of acceptance vs avoidance because it detailed in many ways the steps I’ve taken since the boys’ diagnosis’. Only I had to struggle for years to learn the lessons he so succinctly summed up. If you can’t find peace in your days due to tragedy, old or new, I believe this course could help you turn a corner.
7. I’m using the skills from the course in regards to identify ‘nourishing’ and ‘depleting’ activities to help change the crazy schedule we’ve allowed our family to slip into. The practice of identifying daily activities as nourishing and depleting is simple enough, so I’m going to have our kids do it to help identify activities we could drop, and also areas where we could all work on an attitude adjustment. In general, I’m hoping to pass along more of the mindfulness lessons I’ve learned to the kids. When I asked Dr. Bottaro’s advice in this regard he answered:
It is incredibly important to introduce kids to mindfulness. Our culture is so anti-mindful that they are being swept away by a current of anxiety that leads to a lot of unhappiness. The most important steps for parents is to learn it themselves. Parents can’t give their children what they don’t have themselves. Kids learn most from watching their parents, and being in relationship with them. From infancy, children learn emotion regulation from their parents. The gaze of mother to infant actually helps a newborn baby calm down, which is the first experience of emotion regulation and “mindfulness”. There is fascinating brain science behind this, and it is essential to healthy neurodevelopment. Practically speaking, there are many other things that parents can do, and I am developing another course on mindful parenting. Teaching kids to breathe in order to calm down is a simple first step process. Mostly we all really need to slow down.
After hosting orphan children who had trouble managing their emotions in an age appropriate way, it seems like common sense to learn as much about a method that can make a future hosting more enjoyable for everyone, while also giving these children a valuable lifelong skill.
So those are my thoughts! I encourage you to learn how mindfulness differs from meditation (and thus, is totally cool for Catholics) if you still have questions. and I know Dr. Bottaro is also very responsive to messages. You can also find him at the CatholicPsych Institute on Facebook. Maybe this is the year a Catholic Mindfulness Course could help you?